Jane McLeod: Parsnips show star potential
June 21, 2010
Steamboat Springs — I've revised my thinking about parsnips since discovering that they grow well here, are good for you and are quite delicious when harvested late and cooked right.
Parsnips, or pastinaca sativa, often are thought to be a kind of turnip, but in fact, are far from it. As a member of the umbelliferae family, parsnips are related to carrots and parsley. They are low in calories and a good source of fiber, potassium, vitamin C and folic acid. They are slow-growing and need our full summer season to reach kitchen readiness, but the best part is that parsnips actually turn sweeter — their starch turns to sugar — after they have been frost-nipped a few times, so our short growing season with early fall frosts actually becomes an asset.
Parsnips look like white carrots but are fatter on top and skinnier on the bottom with a texture that is somewhat potato-like. The site and space requirements for parsnips are the same as for their carrot cousins — sunny and well-drained. The soil should be moderately rich, pulverized deeper than for carrots, and not too heavy or stony as any obstacles will cause distortion of the roots. To correct our heavy-clay soil, add plenty of organic matter until the texture is loamy. Once this vegetable takes hold and gets some growth, it will accept slightly dryer soil conditions and dig down for water beneath the surface.
Sow the seeds where they will grow as soon as the ground can be worked. Use fresh, new seeds, for more than most vegetables, parsnip seeds deteriorate in viability if stored for long periods. Sow the seeds thickly to enhance chances of germination, which are notoriously poor even under the best of conditions. Cover with a half to three-quarter inch of very light, fine soil or compost, because like carrots, parsnips balk at trying to break through a surface soil crust. Water with a fine spray and keep the bed moist until you see seedlings. The seed bed must be kept moist, which in the beginning will require several mist-like sprays a day. If this is impossible for your schedule, covering the seed rows with wet burlap or a wooden board will help retain moisture between watering. Once you have seedlings, don't let the soil dry out. Thin the seedlings to about 4 inches apart when they are about 4 inches tall. Weed often, because parsnips can't take much competition. When frosts arrive, keep the crowns covered with a few inches of compost or rich soil while you start to harvest.
Now, for their kitchen debut, you can mash cooked parsnips as you would potatoes; puree and add them to soups; peel and shred them raw and use in salads; or best of all, drizzle olive oil over them, toss to coat, add a couple sprigs of thyme and even a garlic clove or three, then roast them uncovered at 400 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes, turning and stirring, until they are golden and tender.
After a mouthful of tender, sweet roasted parsnips I have great faith that you, too, will start espousing their virtues.
Jane McLeod is a master gardener through the Routt County Cooperative Extension Office. Call 970-879-0825 with questions.